Glyphosate – the formulation is the poison

The old saying that “the dose is the poison” (i.e. the amount taken is what causes the poison”) may soon be joined by another, when talking weedkillers and humans, that “the formulation is the poison”.

The news that has ruled Monsanto is liable for a terminally ill man’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma cancer and has awarded him $289 million in damages is generating a lot of attention worldwide.  This could be the first significant crack in the company’s carefully crafted armour against claims that its glyphosate-containing products are carcinogenic.

It must also be giving considerable encouragement to what the complainant’s lawyers say are more than 4,000 similar cases across the US.

It will be interesting to see whether the ruling is based strictly on the active chemical glyphosate as the causative agent, or whether the formulation containing the glyphosate is cited as the carcinogenic factor.

An article in the Guardian back in May pointed out that “while regulators have previously required extensive testing of glyphosate in isolation, government scientists have not fully examined the toxicity of the more complex products sold to consumers, farmers and others.”

A summary of the results of tests done under the US National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) first-ever examination of herbicide formulations made with the active ingredient glyphosate stated that glyphosate formulations decreased human cell “viability”, disrupting cell membranes.  Cell viability was “significantly altered” by the formulations, it stated.  This is not the same as saying that the formulation is cancer-causing, but that it harms human cells.

The Guardian’s May article goes on to say:

“… internal company emails dating back 16 years, which emerged in a court case last year, offer a glimpse into the company’s view. In one 2003 internal company email, a Monsanto scientist stated: “You cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen … we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement. The testing on the formulations are not anywhere near the level of the active ingredient.” Another internal email, written in 2010, said: “With regards to the carcinogenicity of our formulations we don’t have such testing on them directly.” And an internal Monsanto email from 2002 stated: “Glyphosate is OK but the formulated product … does the damage.”

It will be interesting to see whether these emails played any role in the jury’s decision.